The Practice Of “Gay Conversion” May Finally Be Abandoned

Jun 11, 2014 at 8:45 AM ET

One young man was brought into a mirrored room and told to strip naked in front of a counselor twice his age. Another was told to beat an effigy of his mother with a tennis racket. Others were forced to sit as counselors called them “faggot” and “homo,” part of a mock locker-room scenario designed to get them in touch with their masculine sides.

These are just a few of the abuses young men endured at JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing), a Jewish clinic that aimed to convert homosexuals into heterosexuals. Now a lawsuit could make JONAH the first gay conversion group to be held legally accountable for damage its counseling caused.

New Jersey Superior Court Judge Peter F. Bariso ruled late last week that the nonprofit could be liable for up to three times what the plaintiffs paid to treat the psychological trauma they suffered after undergoing gay conversion therapy. Four gay men and two of their mothers initially filed the civil suit in late 2012, charging the group under New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act. The recent ruling could have a much broader impact by creating a precedent for countless gay therapy survivors to seek reparations down the road.

The judge’s decision can also be seen as a sharp rebuke of the practice, which the American Psychiatric Association has condemned as pseudoscience. “These self-proclaimed experts inflicted grave damage upon our clients, who believed JONAH’s claims that it could ‘cure’ them of being gay,” says David Dinielli, the deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is representing the victims. “These young men were left with guilt, shame and frustration.”

Though the therapy gained ground in the 1990s—thanks largely to religious groups—it’s now increasingly coming under attack. In 2012, California became the first state to ban the practice for minors, and New Jersey followed suit a year later. Similar proposals have been introduced in other states, including Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota and Massachusetts. But perhaps the biggest blow to the so-called ex-gay movement came last year, when Exodus International, the self-described “oldest and largest Christian ministry dealing with faith and homosexuality,” shut its doors. Alan Chambers, the group’s president, personally denounced the practice and issued an apology to the LGBT community for “the pain and hurt many of [them had] experienced.” Chambers became just the latest former advocate to decry conversion therapy, joining John Paulk of Focus on the Family and John Smid of Love in Action, both of whom divorced their wives and now live openly as gay men.

Smid’s Love in Action, a residential program in Tennessee, took away patients’ underwear if they appeared too gay and used an egg timer in the bathroom to make sure they wouldn’t masturbate while showering. In 2010, Smid issued an apology for his group’s practices and later published a memoir that details his change of heart. Today he believes the JONAH suit will become a landmark case for the LGBT community.

“As a former ex-gay leader I believe this is a wakeup call for the ex-gay movement to do some honest soul-searching and evaluation of what we taught in our ministries,” he tells Vocativ. “We can make a difference now by making amends where they are owed, and often that means actively doing something to heal the damage. Because for the victims of these therapies, just ceasing the practice is not enough.”

Even so, the ex-gay movement persists, especially in Texas. The state’s Republicans adopted a party line just last week that supports conversion therapy for homosexuals. A draft of the platform reads: “We recognize the legitimacy and value of counseling which offers reparative therapy and treatment to patients who are seeking escape from the homosexual lifestyle.”

Despite such support, Smid believes groups like JONAH are headed for extinction. “Gay conversion therapy is going to become a joke,” he says. “It’s going to become a mockery. And it’s already started.”